Sunday, 27 April 2008

Bird-shit, Beer and Boundaries

We've got a couple of people from the Boston office in town right now, and they decided that they'd like to watch one of the IPL matches live, so a bunch of us from work decided to go along (read: team outing=company paying). As a result, I got to view my first Twenty20 match live - Bangalore Royal Challengers versus Rajasthan Royals at the Chinnaswamy stadium.

The tickets we got entitled us to a couple of free beers and dinner. However, when entering we found that they didn't allow bottled water in, and worse, didn't sell it inside either. This made things pretty bad for the visitors - they had chosen to walk down from their hotel, and were already red from the exertion. Drinking the water from the available dispensers was not an option, since there was the risk of picking up an infection. Surprisingly, hard liquor was also on sale at the venue, but they refused to sell Sprite without alcohol. Vijay Mallya certainly knows where his money comes from.

We had got seats in what was referred to as the 'Royal Challenge North Terrace' (all the stands were named for booze brands from the UB group, with the janta stands named after Bagpiper, the hep one near the pavilions named after Black Dog and so on), which overlooked the sight-screen from the Cubbon Road end. Getting to our seats, we found that, firstly, although the tickets had seat numbers on them, the seats didn't - you just went and parked yourself wherever you wanted. Worse still, Kailash Kher was performing on a stage next to our stand, and the noise had literally scared the shit out of the birds gathered in the roof overhead. The floor and all the seats in the front rows were white with guano. Considering the amount of money being thrown into getting in cheerleaders and such-like, you would think that they could afford to spend some to at least keep the seats clean. Anyway , after first depositing the visitors and a few others in the back, a few of us decided to sacrifice our jeans to be able to catch a better view of the action, moving right up to the first row. I joked that if we wanted to be shown on TV, we just had to move around while a ball was being bowled - the batsman would surely complain and the cameras would pan to where we sat to show who the offenders were. That didn't really happen though, but it would have been worth a try.

Having got a look at the players practicing (its surprisingly exciting to be able to recognize them purely from how they move on the field, without the aid of the camera close-up), and seen a couple of routines by the cheerleaders, we figured it was time to go get our free beers, only to find that a whole bunch of other people had the same idea. Which meant that there was a line that nearly stretched out to the entrance to get it. By the time we got the beer, we missed the first two balls, which encompassed Rahul Dravid's entire innings.

The cricket itself was fairly exciting to begin with. When you've gotten used to watching cricket on TV, it's tough to get used to not having replays and close-ups. Not having to listen to the endless prattle of the commentators is a blessing, though. I was really surprised to see how far the leather ball travels - Ross Taylor managed to top-edge one all the way over the third man boundary. Watching Taylor bat brought two things to mind - one, that he's an amazing talent and you wish he would not just throw it all away after a few bold strokes, and two, that bats these days are just fantastic. The aforementioned top-edge, of course, is an example, but there were also a few sweetly timed strokes that just seemed to keep going when you would expect them to land a few meters inside the boundary. Once he was gone, though, the rest of the batsmen were rather subdued, except for some late hitting by Praveen Kumar, who I think should be sent up the order to shake things up a little - the current Bangalore batting order just looks too slow-moving at times. The other highlight of the Bangalore innings was watching Shane Warne bowl. The waddle to the crease, the wind-up, the twirling delivery - they're all there, just like on TV. I tried to get a couple of pictures on my phone, but most were too blurred, which is just as well - I wouldn't want Lalit Modi coming after me. The Bangalore team was pretty disappointing in their batting, and if not for Kumar's slogging at the end, would have been hard-pressed to get to even the 135 they finally managed. Not too many pom-pom-waving moments for the cheerleaders, unfortunately.

It was approximately dinner-time by then, but since the whole stand decided to head toward the buffet tables, the queue spread across two floors and the intervening staircase, so we decided to chuck dinner. The Rajasthan innings began shortly after, and a few early wickets notwithstanding, it was a fairly easy effort for them. The field settings were a mess at times, with Dravid seeming to make an extra effort to appear different and aggressive, with two slip fielders and loads of people in the 30-yard circle. While aggression is all very well, you have to temper it with common sense - with small boundaries, big bats and little pressure, the opposition batsmen could just swing away in the knowledge that even mis-hits would get them boundaries. Comparing Dravid's captaincy with Warne's, it seemed somewhat forced, especially when trying to build camaraderie within the team. Warne, on the other hand, seems to get along much more naturally, although it must be said that he has a whole bunch of youngsters who are already in awe of him, so its easier to make his presence felt.

We left the stadium early, just as Shane Watson took a liking to Kumar and pasted him for 26 in one over. This time it seemed the crowd didn't anticipate our move, and we could get out easily without having to shove and push our way through. Our visitors had left early since they couldn't survive without the water, so we dropped in on them at the hotel and chatted for a while about cricket and all the ads they'd seen on TV before heading back home.

Overall, what did I think of the experience? Worthwhile only if someone else is paying - which I guess held true for most of the other people in the stand, most of whom seemed to be there with free passes or because they knew someone in the setup. Apparently for the first game the beer had been unlimited, but they realised that too many people just didn't know when to stop. Mukul Kesavan had a long rant on Cricinfo a few days ago about the IPL and Twenty20 in general, and I'm guessing he was in a particularly bilious mood only because he watched the match at the ground. It reduces him to cribbing about the fact that you can't figure out who the players are because the game's too fast, unlike Test ('real') cricket where
you get to know the players, specially if you're at the stadium because you watch them move about when nothing is happening; cricket has lots of "dead" time in between individual deliveries and overs, which helps the spectator into a state of relaxed alertness.
I've never heard someone extol the virtues of dead time before, and really, since the players are all in white (as his blog's name so clearly states), it would have been pretty difficult anyway to identify them without looking at the scoreboard, which is an option available even in Twenty20.

Having said all that and done my little bit of cribbing, however, I have to say that I think the game, stripped of the razzmatazz and the flying Bollywood heroes and all that, is still exciting, fun and does showcase the skills of the participants very well. The fact that the players are playing for personal and professional pride rather than national honour takes some of the pressure off them, and allows them to give their talents free rein. It's still early days for the tournament, and pretty soon the actors will all have to go back to running around trees, the American cheerleaders will be replaced by East European wannabe models, and a lot of the big name foreign players will head back for national duty. That's when the real staying power of the format will be tested, when the young Indian players have to start shouldering greater responsibility, and everyone starts to figure out each other's game. I think there's definitely going to be a dip in viewership at least till the finals, but the hardcore fans will still stay on, and will be rewarded with an early look at some of India's future greats. Now, if only there were some way to replace those annoying commentators on TV.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

A Thought Experiment on Gender Stereotyping

A quick follow-up to my previous post.
Consider this - the model, while being an exercise in sophistry, could just as well have been applied keeping a woman's preferences in mind over the intelligence and looks of the available male population. Even assuming that women may rate intelligence more highly, the recommendations for intelligent, single men would pretty much be the same - get pretty and get out there.
So here's a question - would your reaction to such a prescription be:
(a) that is so true - women would kill for a guy who has exfoliant and isn't afraid to use it;
(b) looks-schmooks - girls just love guys with a sense of humour;
(c) girls select guys? Hai hai what evil, western influences are you perpetuating!; or
(d) where does love fit into all this? Every girl should have the right to fall for the first ugly, dumb jerk who comes her way.
Answer in the comments please, and preferably specify your gender as well, if not your identity.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Who needs Pop Psychology when you've got Pop Economics?

It looks like (mangled) concepts from economics and game theory are set to take over from pop psychology as the rushed journalists' choice to explain social phenomena. Besides the advantage that economics is more en vogue than psychology these days, sounding more logical and, um, hygienic (no messing around with sexual issues and being badly treated by your mom), it has the added advantage of allowing the journalist to link to incomprehensibly mathematical papers as reference, so it becomes difficult for readers to call their bluff. Take, for example, this article on Slate (linked to by both MR and SM), which tries to explain 'The Eligible Bachelor Paradox', using economics and game theory to 'explain the shortage of available, appealing men'.

You can think of this traditional concept of the search for marriage partners as a kind of an auction. In this auction, some women will be more confident of their prospects, others less so. In game-theory terms, you would call the first group "strong bidders" and the second "weak bidders." Your first thought might be that the "strong bidders"—women who (whether because of looks, social ability, or any other reason) are conventionally deemed more of a catch—would consistently win this kind of auction.

But this is not true. In fact, game theory predicts, and empirical studies of auctions bear out, that auctions will often be won by "weak" bidders, who know that they can be outbid and so bid more aggressively, while the "strong" bidders will hold out for a really great deal...

Where have all the most appealing men gone? Married young, most of them—and sometimes to women whose most salient characteristic was not their beauty, or passion, or intellect, but their decisiveness.
All of this sounds great, except that there's very little related to auction theory in there, especially if you were to go through the paper the author links to. In fact, while the paper does talk of the weak bidders bidding aggressively, that's in the context of bid shaving - bidding less than their total holdings. In effect they're driving a tougher deal with the seller, not settling quickly. Overall, it's a lot of faff dressed up as game theory - after all, just because some women are 'easy', doesn't mean men have to get married to them. Indeed, there's absolutely no discussion of the men's preferences. But I guess it's written to appeal to single, lonely women who read Slate and have a higher opinion of their intelligence, to make them feel better about not finding an eligible bachelor yet. The women who've found guys are all probably too busy to read Slate - the hussies.
But I come to join the ranks of pop economists, not to bury them. So here's my take on the same problem, using good old-fashioned Consumer demand theory and indifference curves.
To begin with, let's start with a utility function describing the preferences of a man over Intelligence and Beauty:

i.e. the individual gets utility from (his partner's) intelligence and beauty, and aims to find a partner with the optimal combination of both (assuming convex preferences). The indifference curves would be as given at right.

For this particular model , let's consider the individual's endowment to be in terms of time, which constrains his ability to choose. The budget constraint can be written as
M=P1I + P2B
Where M is the time available, P1 is the 'price' of intelligence - interpreted as the time spent to search/identify intelligence. Similarly P2 can be considered the 'price' of beauty (given that it's easier to identify beauty, P2 would be less than P1, with the slope of the budget constraint, (-)P1/P2 >1). The budget constraint for one endowment is shown in the diagram as M1, with the individual choosing the combination (that is, partner) A.
Now consider that it's becoming easier for women to look pretty these days - better make-up, shampoos, hair irons and what-have-you, which means that the 'supply' of beauty has gone up, which in turn means the price has gone down-with more pretty women around, the individual has to spend less time to find them. This change in price will affect the final outcome, which can be split into the substitution and income effects.
The (Hicks) substitution effect is the effect of the individual changing his choice, given the new prices, if he had to stay on the same indifference curve - i.e. get the same level of utility, for which he would in fact require only an endowment M1'. This would see him shift from combination A to combination A', opting for a greater level of beauty and substituting away from intelligence.
The change in prices also implies an increase in purchasing power, which is captured by the income effect. The individual's new budget constraint is M2, putting him on a higher indifference curve (i.e. getting a higher level of utility), and his final choice will be the combination B, with greater beauty and less intelligence. (if we considered beauty to be an inferior good, we might have expected the income effect to counter-act the substitution effect to some extent, but, hey, that's not realistic now is it?).
In a nut-shell, that means that as it becomes easier for women to look pretty, men would readily substitute away from intelligence and opt for a partner with greater beauty. And we didn't even need auction theory to explain that.
But we might as well ask what this means for the intelligent, single women who read Slate magazine. One option is to go out there and get themselves noticed - that would reduce the 'price' of finding them, which should cause the price effect discussed above to work in their favour. The other option is to pretty themselves up - that moves them up to a higher indifference curve, and thus more desirable. Of course, both options are not mutually exclusive.
So there you have it, all you intelligent, single women, your prescription for relationship success: look good and get out there.
Hooray for Pop Economics!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Poignant or Pretentious? The Perils of Perusing Poetry

Background: Over on Millennium Hand (that comes with 2 'n's, and highly recommended), there's a nice little discussion started on poetry, starting with MH/Y/Han Solo asking for suggestions on what poetry to read, to which I responded that '[P]oetry works ... but it’s tough to find good poetry on your own - where do you draw the line between the poignant and the pretentious?'. I figured I'd expand on the point here, since it might get too long to put in the comments.

The point I was trying to make was as follows: Good poetry will evoke a strong response from the reader, as will really bad poetry. However, a lot of poetry falls in the middle - sometimes it feels like the poet couldn't put into words all that was going on his/her head, sometimes you feel like you may be reading too much into the poem, and sometimes you're just going 'WTF?'. It gets worse if you don't have a context to place the poem within. It's a bit like trying to taste a wine and figure out if it's something worth drinking, something you don't like right now but should acquire a taste for, or just overpriced plonk.
For example, consider the following poems. The first is a haiku attributed to Jason Strugnell (more on that later):
November evening:
The moon is up, rooks settle,
The pubs are open.

Now consider this poem, 42 by e. e. cummings




g can




the m








Now go back and read the two again. Hold whatever thoughts you have.
Now go read up on Strugnell and cummings. Does your perception of the two poems change?
I don't think the haiku is great, but I bet if I recommended it enthusiastically enough to people, a fair number would just wrinkle their brow and wonder why they didn't get it. Similarly, the cummings poem makes some sense only in the context of his larger work. Otherwise, it's borderline pretentious.
In short, context can make or break a poem. Also, it helps to have someone you can trust recommend stuff to you.
Incidentally, if you're really interested in reading poetry, you could do worse than joining the mailing list at the Wondering Minstrels. Along with poetry, you get context. I managed to keep up with it for a fair while in college, but I eventually fell too far behind in my reading once I started work to really keep up with them. I remember introducing at least one friend to the list in college, and she became a pretty regular contributor after that.
In lieu of a smart and sassy closing statement, here's a poem from the person who created Strugnell, Wendy Cope:
Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis
It was a dream I had last week
And some kind of record seemed vital.
I knew it wouldn't be much of a poem
But I love the title.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Is that a book in your back pocket, or are you just putting on weight?

There's this article from the NY Times, which not one, but two of the blogs I subscribe to on Google Reader commented upon, which makes it a matter for serious consideration. The gist of the essay is this:

Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility.
If this were true, it would mean that I'm destined for a life filled with short, unfulfilling relationships with the fairer sex.

Consider, for instance, the picture at right - that's the first shelf of my (tiny) bookshelf. The authors on that shelf include Ray Bradbury, le Carre, Chuck Palahniuk, Gaiman, Camus, Philip K Dick, Hunter S Thompson, Che Guevara, Ramchandra Guha, Richard Dawkins, Tim Harford, Thomas Friedman, Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Amartya Sen and a bunch of others. I doubt if most of the women I know (not that I know too many), or even the ones I may come to know in future, would read all or even most of them. And that's not even considering the remaining shelves, other books I've read but do not own, the collection of comics and graphic novels on my comp, or the masses of automotive magazines I end up accumulating. This is not a criticism of the women I know - most of the men I know won't get around to reading all of them either. It's never really mattered to me, really- reading for me has always been more of a personal indulgence, the way other people listen to music or something. In fact, it's even more personal: I don't think I could ever get around to recommending books (except maybe to younger relatives and such-like). A common like or dislike may have reinforced a few relationships, but I don't think it's ever been a standalone factor in the success or failure of any of them. So thinking of books as a way of scoping out women just seems rather strange to me.
Of course back in college I did try to look all intellectual at times by carrying 'angle' books to class. That was partly inspired by watching this senior of mine drape himself on the steps or in the various nooks and corners in and around the main corridor, wearing crumpled clothes and engrossed in whatever he was reading until distracted by his hot girlfriend. I don't think I ever impressed any women, but I did get around to reading some pretty good stuff. Conversely, though, the only time I've had a woman come and talk to me at a pub was also over a book - a copy of 'Pundits from Pakistan' I had with me one day at Toto's. It turned out she knew the author and was trying to gather feedback for him, and further conversation revealed that she knew much of the crowd at Cricinfo, including 'Young George' as she referred to him, but still, that counts. So maybe carrying a book around does help with the women.
I don't think I've ever met a woman who shares similar reading preferences to mine, except for my sister, and the latter only because she was a major influence on my reading choices growing up. Which does put me in a tight spot, if the essayist is to be believed. I'd have to feign an interest in Paulo Coelho, I guess, to get anywhere. Having said that, I would be somewhat apprehensive about meeting someone who actually reads the same stuff that I do. It would kill some of the excitement of reading something new if I knew she had already read it. And I'm sure there would be petty arguments to establish which one is the bigger Wodehouse fan.
Frankly, I'm just happy to have people around me who read, irrespective of what they read and whether they are friends or prospective dates or whatever, and (hopefully) we don't judge each other based on what we're reading. Having said that, if you're a single woman who knows her Rorschach from her Rorschach, drop me a comment. Heck, if you're a woman reading this blog, drop me a comment. It would be a nice change.

Friday, 11 April 2008

One more reason to watch the IPL

Apparently the Washington Redskins' cheerleading squad is heading to India, to cheer on the Royal Challengers. So much for those Eastern European women on the ICL.
There's also going to be a talent search to develop a team in India itself. What are the odds that someone in the US is going to start worrying about more American jobs getting Bangalored, I wonder?

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Sunny Gavaskar has it all figured out, as always

Will someone please tell Sunil Gavaskar to get off his high horse? Over the last couple of seasons he's started going overboard in his commentary, playing the gutsy guy who's not afraid to speak his mind and stand up to the establishment. But that's basically a mixture of bravado and (selective) hindsight, considering that (a) he is still part of the establishment and (b) his outbursts often come out after the fact, summarizing the mood of the cricket-crazy Indian public rather than making any original points. By a circular logic, having someone of his stature appear to agree with them only makes the public hold him in higher regard. Take, for example, this piece from Cricinfo, summarizing his latest column where he slams the Indian cricketers for 'dancing at the launch of their [IPL] franchise' instead of having an extra net session. While this may sound great for a lot of disappointed fans, the fact is that he published this after India had been thrashed by South Africa. The launches were, of course, before the Test started, so if he felt so bad about it, he could well have raised the point then. It begs the question, if India had won the Test, or even drawn it, would he have come out and said the same thing? Drawing that logic out further, would he then have said that this is a great bunch of kids because even though they're out partying and dancing, they know their priorities? I doubt it. While I agree that the players seemed lacklustre (at least in the few snippets I saw on the news; my cable operator decided not to show us Neo Sports), Gavaskar really was in a position to bring it to light in advance, rather than opt to kick them when they're down, yet he chose not to. Just to rub it in further, he warns Gary Kirsten that '[he] better crack the whip, else some of the guys will ride roughshod over him.' Let's not forget that these guys have managed to do fairly well without a proper 'coach' for a really long time now (not to discount the work that Venkatesh Prasad and Robin Singh have done, but neither of them were deemed to be the upfront coach/manager which is what Kirsten's role is supposed to be; besides, they're still part of the setup supporting Kirsten, so things have not changed much on that front).
Of course, Gavaskar is not the only former cricketer to suffer from a slightly inflated view of himself combined with selective hindsight. Geoffrey Boycott, in his latest 'Bowl at Boycs' podcast claims that today's cricketers, although they are physically fitter, are not 'cricket fit'. As evidence he puts forth the example of Fred Trueman who apparently bowled over 1,000 overs every summer for 5 years (Boycs checked the statistics!). The problem with that assessment of course is that although it may be factually correct, it doesn't really resolve anything. What would help would be a comparison of how other fast bowlers fared in Trueman's time - it may well be that Trueman was naturally athletic and had an exceptionally injury-proof bowling action, which does not necessarily hold true for a lot of bowlers - and also an assessment of how he performed otherwise on the field, diving around and firing in throws from the outfield - consider that a lot of bowlers pick up shoulder injuries that make it more difficult to throw, rather than to bowl. He also goes off on a diatribe against limited-overs cricket when someone asks him on advice on how to play straighter and finishes that off by telling him to try and play straighter, which is not very helpful advice (a solution that presents itself to me would be to change his grip to keep the bat face more open, and concentrate on using the top hand more, rather than forcing the shot with the bottom hand, but then I am just a tennis ball-thrashing slogger, so what do I know).
I guess it's a problem that plagues a lot of sports - having former players talking off the top of their heads. What is surprising is that given how stats-crazy a lot of cricket fans are, there's very little data-supported, common sense-driven analysis that goes on (excepting of course, The List and such-like; too often you see either too little or too much of data, with little common sense).
Maybe with the coming of the IPL, we might see cricket's equivalent of Sabermetrics. Though I guess what would really help there would be allowing legal betting on cricket in India. But that's a topic for another post which I might get around to writing someday.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Getting in touch with my feminine side

'My Super Ex-Girlfriend' on Star Movies versus 'Bionic Woman Marathon' on Star World. Super Sunday indeed!

Friday, 4 April 2008

What Kind of Economic Crisis creeps up on you at 3 AM?

Over on India Uncut , Amit Varma has posted a couple of ads, one from Hillary Clinton and a response from John McCain, on how if ever an economic crises were to befall the US, it would need a President who's ready for the job to take that phone call at 3 AM that presumably sounds the alert.
Setting aside questions on who really is more suitable, one must ask - just what kind of economic crisis crops up at 3 AM? The sub-prime/mortgage crisis mentioned in the ads built up over at least 3 months or so (or even longer if you consider them to be the fallout of actions taken by the Fed under Greenspan). Most (purely) economic crises that would be on a scale that threatens an entire nation would take some time to build up, and you would need an extremely inefficient administration to not realize what was going on till 3 AM one fine day. Of course, neither ad talks about what the candidate would do once they take that call.

Give me Lalu Prasad Yadav playing kapdaphar Holi any day. At least he keeps it real.